Most newspaper people are convinced they have the most interesting profession. They love to tell anecdotes. But when they write books about their careers, these are often not as interesting as the life they remember or the stories they have covered. To organize all the material a book requires, and to keep it fresh, is hard. Warren H. Phillips, who has been a reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and CEO of a great newspaper and its parent company, has tackled the challenge in Newspaperman: Inside the News Business at The Wall Street Journal (McGraw-Hill, $30).
Phillips, who lived for some time in Brooklyn Heights, comes across in the book as an earnest and unpretentious fellow who has set out to provide all the names and details, but without supplying enough analytic insights or color to make the story more compelling. We learn he was “a skinny, timid, unathletic Jewish kid from Queens” who was smart enough to skip several semesters and to graduate from high school at 14, but who somehow, even after a “postgraduate” year to develop more maturity, failed to get into any of the better colleges he applied to. He passes over that failure without wondering why. In the rather cursory telling of his childhood and teen years, he barely hints at the inner anxieties he undoubtedly experienced.
Of his Heights years, Phillips mentions friendships with the Hamish Mazwells, the Jim Riordans, the Seth Faisons, the Otis Pearsalls and the Ted Reids, among others, without expanding on these relationships. (Phillips sent his two daughters to Packer, where his wife also taught.) As executive editor, he appointed another Heights resident, the late Bob Bartley, to be editorial page editor. Here he defends his choice of a man seen to the right of himself (Phillips describes himself as a social liberal but economic conservative) on the basis of Bartley’s strength as a writer and for the need of the paper to have clearly articulated editorials.
The generally superficial tenor continues through his early reporting years, after what he cites as his tenacity finally lands him a job at the then smallish financial daily with a 100,000 circulation. Conscientious and attentive to what his bosses tell him, he quickly advances. He gets to interview and profile the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. But what is his impression of this man whom many hold responsible for 1950s foreign policy blunders over Iran and Egypt that had lasting consequences for the Middle East? Not told. It’s as if Phillips was working from sketchy notes about his travels and assignments and felt a need to list them all, but with scant elaboration.
The story picks up a bit after he becomes an editor and works in collaboration with other editors and reporters, nearly all of whom he speaks only well of. Therein no doubt is a key to his managerial success. One of the few negative comments concerns someone I also crossed paths with, R. W. “Johnny” Apple, whom Phillips fired for his persistent tardiness in arriving for work, but who then moved on to NBC and ultimately became a major star at the New York Times. (Phillips suggests those other operations had later hours than the Journal, more congenial to Apple’s internal clock.) Apple broke me in on my first day at NBC, when I observed him moving between the newsroom and the film editing rooms, and into the studio. The next day he was on vacation, and I had his job. Apple impressed me as highly energetic, self-confident and brash – qualities that may not have seemed sufficiently collegial to Phillips at the Journal.
The book’s best part, apart from an episode of a storm at sea, when his sailboat capsized and he and his family barely made it to shore, deals with his travels in China at the time of the Nixon overture to China in 1972. Having just been elected president of Dow Jones, Phillips suffered from a depression that seemed immune to Freudian analysis but was more effectively treated with the drug Tofranil. Here again we get no real introspection. But the real cure was the China trip, which Phillips describes with a vividness lacking in his earlier travel descriptions. He is no longer tied to his earlier deadlines or to his previous reportage, and he writes with an immediacy that places the reader into the scene.
In sum, this book reads mostly like an authorized version, with not enough glimpses of how it really was. We learn a lot of facts about The Wall Street Journal without being taken inside to experience the currents and rivalries that must have gone on. We are pleased that Warren Phillips had a good career, but we’d like to know a little more deeply about it and him.